A visit to the largest necropolis in the world (the final resting place of 6 million Parisians) may seem like an odd activity when visiting a city known for its beauty, vibrancy, fashion, and general joie de vivre. It is an experience not for the squeamish and probably only to be done once in a lifetime.
Visitors to the catacombs are whisked out of the joyful Paris sunshine through an ominous black door that leads to a descent down a spiral staircase about 20 metres underground. The path to the catacombs winds through a maze of narrow corridors flanked with stone carvings that signify the site's former use as a quarry. Finally, the entrance to the catacombs is signalled by a foreboding opening with a lintel piece stating: 'Arrète! C'est ici l'empire de la mort' (Stop! This is the empire of the dead).
According to the catacomb museum, at the end of the 18th century Paris contained 200 cemeteries, which were overcrowded and beginning to infect the Paris water supply and spill their contents into neighbouring houses, so an order was given to transfer all the bodies into abandoned quarry sites. Several notable figures are anonymously interred in the catacombs, including Colbert, Molière, Danton, and Robespierre.
The most striking thing about the catacombs is the design and symmetry of the place. Bones were not haphazardly deposited here, but care was taken to create a sort of artwork with them as if in anticipation of a future tourist attraction. Skulls and bones are piled into rows over 6 feet high and at least 5 feet deep on all sides of a tiny path that winds through the tunnels. There are chapel areas, as well as quotes to remind the visitor of their own mortality.
There is only so much time one can spend comfortably in the company of 6 million bodies before longing for sunshine and fresh air. The exit is through a gift shop, which, perhaps in true Parisian fashion, takes a humorous view of the morbid scene just witnessed by providing bone-themed pastries and cakes.